CA Lic. MFC 28846
Compassionate And Respectful Divorce?
By David A. Peters, MFT
Anyone who has suffered a divorce knows first hand how easy it is for the battling partners to regress to their most immature selves and act out in ugly ways. The result is a considerable waste of money in legal fees, social embarrassment, emotional pain, and children suffering long-term trauma. Is there a way to avoid such destruction? It turns out that the very skills that contribute to a healthy marriage can also lead to a healthy divorce. There is much to gain from practicing respect and compassion toward your soon-to-be ex-spouse during a divorce.
Respect, compassion, and the courage to heal
We often mistakenly believe that we can’t help but be ugly during a divorce. But it’s really a choice. The initial flash of anger is usually in response to the frustration of not getting what we want. Holding onto anger is a temporary protection against pain. It is what we call a “primitive defense”. Yet it hurts the other, and leads to them acting out against us in return. Giving up our anger opens us to feeling greater pain. Yet it also allows greater opportunity for healing the wound. And it avoids provoking our ex-spouse, reducing the likelihood of them acting out against us in return. Friends and family often mistakenly encourage us to act out in vengeful ways during a divorce, as if that way they show that they are “on our side”. It takes courage on our part to decline to be vengeful. It takes courage to be responsible for healing.
The way to begin this path toward healing is to make the decision to practice respect and compassion from the beginning. It is the decision to practice the “golden rule”. Respect means avoiding derogatory comments, and showing common courtesy such as doing favors and being flexible for the other when possible. Compassion means paying attention to the pain of the other person, and showing real concern about it. It means using sincere comments such as, “I’m sorry this is so painful,” and apologizing when you fall into nasty attacks on the other.
Someone experiencing the horror of an ugly divorce may ask, “why should I be nice when my ex is being so mean? They deserve what’s coming to them!” Such a person is reacting to their pain and making the mistake of thinking that fighting back will make them feel better. It won’t. It will trigger their ex to fight even harder, and show their friends and family how ugly they themselves can be.
Another common mistake is the belief that by being kind during a divorce we open ourselves up to being taken advantage of. This isn’t the case. Compassion isn’t “being a sucker”. We must practice respect and compassion toward ourselves as well as toward the other. If we respect ourselves, we are assertive when necessary, and don’t allow ourselves to be “taken” by the other. We make sure that we attempt to get our own needs met. This includes using a good lawyer when necessary to defend our rights. Respect and compassion must be practiced both ways, toward the self and the other equally. Focusing on compassion for ourselves will reduce our pain and also our need to vent in anger at our ex.
If there are children, you never really get to leave your ex!
Most people completely neglect the fact that they must find a way to cooperate with their ex-spouse from the time of the divorce until the day their children are married off. Even after that, they will find each other at their grandchildren’s birthday parties. If there are children, you never really get away from your ex! So the worst thing you could do is provoke an ugly, vengeful divorce. The fight never ends. The sooner you build a working relationship with the other parent, the greater the peace in your co-parenting task. It is the only healthy way to raise children. It is good role modeling. And if your ex gets remarried, it’s very advantageous to build a good relationship with their new spouse. That new spouse will either be your ally or your enemy in parenting matters, and you get to influence the outcome!
Good tools for marriage are good tools for divorce.
Differentiation – This is being the most grown-up person you can be no matter what your partner does. If we are caring, sensitive, and courageous in facing our own deficits while our spouse has regressed to childish ugliness, we keep an advantage. We are able to make more wise decisions and avoid escalating problems. And our partner is then challenged by our maturity to rise to the occasion and act in a mature manner again. Practicing differentiation allows us to be proud of ourselves, and to be free from the shame we would feel of our own bad behavior. By standing with our strongest self, and refusing ugliness, our partner at least has a chance to see us for who we really are, rather than their distorted view of us. We are then in a position to gently urge them to also avoid ugliness.
Non-Reactivity – This is keeping yourself calm, or “not reacting”, in the face of the other’s anxiety or anger. This is difficult to do in marriage or any relationship, let alone a divorce. We commonly have quick reactions to uncomfortable emotions such as pain, fear, abandonment, and betrayal. Our reactions are usually destructive, and don’t allow us to think about consequences. Practicing non-reactivity challenges us to allow those uncomfortable emotions to be felt, and to stay calm anyway. We acknowledge our feelings, but we don’t make decisions based upon those feelings.
Active Listening – A marriage may have broken down because of poor communication, but even in the divorce, we still must practice the best communication possible. Active listening means paying close attention when the other person is speaking, and then checking to see if we understand their point, by asking questions. Do this in a sincere tone of voice, and watch your partner calm down! It is another way of showing good intention and respect.
The benefits of using a divorce mediator
We can choose to fight out a divorce with separate lawyers, or to use a single mediation lawyer. Mediation specialists are usually available in most major cities. In San Diego, we have an excellent resource in the National Conflict Resolution Center. While counseling couples through a divorce, I commonly refer them to the San Diego Mediation Center for the legal negotiations. The benefits of using a mediator are many.
Extraordinary savings in legal fees.
Quicker resolution of the settlement.
Reduced energy spent in anger, thus protecting your mental and physical health.
Saving your good name among friends and associates.
Good role modeling for your children.
Builds trust for future negotiations.
Allows for personal growth of the divorcing partners rather than unnecessary wounding.
Ten Steps Toward a Healthy Divorce
Attempt to use a single divorce mediator rather than separate lawyers.
If you have separate lawyers, instruct your lawyer to communicate to the other party in only the most respectful and compassionate tone, and make no threats.
Work with a therapist on managing your pain in healthy ways so as to avoid venting anger in an ugly manner.
Openly verbalize your intentions to be respectful at all times.
When your spouse lashes out at you, stop, take a breath, and plan a respectful response. Take responsibility for calming yourself.
When sharing with friends about the divorce, avoid making ugly comments about your spouse. Ask friends to avoid taking sides. They may really appreciate this.
If there are children, never speak in derogatory terms about the other parent.
Look for opportunities to be flexible with requests of your spouse, to demonstrate your commitment to respect and compassion.
On a daily basis, examine your actions and motivations, checking to see if they are honorable.
If children are involved and your ex gets remarried, quickly build a good relationship with their new spouse. This will give you many strategic advantages when needing your ex to cooperate on co-parenting issues in the future.
Divorce is always painful. But it doesn't have to be ugly. Even if your spouse tries to act in ugly ways, practicing the guidelines above can make you more powerful in your negotiating with them. In my practice I regularly help individuals in divorce act on their most honorable intentions and thus gain power and influence with their soon to be ex-spouse. I can help you too.